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A Nation Still at Risk


A Nation Still At Risk Back on April 16th 2013, a letter to the New York Times caught my eye. It read: “The alarming conclusion of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk was ‘If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre    educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. Sadly, three decades later our country has done little to improve the quality of education.” The author of the letter was Ronald Kaprov, a veteran of 27 years as a teacher in New York, who had worked on the Report that became known as “The Nation at Risk!”                                              I remember the excitement when the “Nation at Risk” Report came out, or as I will call it for this essay, “the Report.” I had entered the profession as an idealist, committed to helping youngsters achieve a better life. It had happened to me, and I wanted to make it happen for others. I also believe that the founding fathers were correct, that an educated public was necessary to ensure a meaningful democracy. While I found many better than average and skilled teachers, from whom I learned much and modeled myself after, I also was appalled by the attitudes of some within my chosen profession. In other words, I ran into careerists, burnouts, triple dippers and incompetents, and I knew from observation and experience, the damage such people could do in thirty years to scores of children. To make matters worse, many administrators similarly did not take the cause or responsibility of educational leadership seriously. I don’t believe incompetence like this would be tolerated in the private sector.                                                I was enthusiastic about the Report, but I was not naïve. I knew the Report was not perfect. For one thing, the absolute correlation between education and economic success was overstated. There are other factors, particularly government policies_OLD that are also important. Similarly the Report was based on data and research that was heavily elementary, ignoring middle and secondary school factors. It was not the absolute infallibility of the Report that excited me. It was the symbolic nature of the Report, which served as a clarion call, focusing the nation’s attention at long last on the needs of its schools!                                                                               Today few remember the opposition at the time to the cause of educational reform. Many argued, with some justification that the Report and the media made it sound like all of society’s problems were caused by the schools. Persistent rumors were common that within the National Department of Education was a strong lobby that urged that the Report be modified or shelved. At the National Education Association annual meeting, Milt Goldberg, a member of the Association’s Executive Committee declared that the Report was “just another passing fad that would fade like the morning haze.” Many teachers, I am proud to say, took this personally and actually hissed the disparaging remarks of the speaker.                                                                                                             While none of them had the imprimatur of the Risk Report, a slew of research studies and by the likes of people such as Jere Brophy, Thomas Good, William Doyle and a host of others demonstrated techniques and ideas that increased learning. Much of the research was among minority groups in the inner cities, a chronic educational concern, and many efforts with such populations were particularly promising.  Interesting and innovative learning programs such as literature circles, constructivism, peer coaching, learning communities, power writing, time on task, looping and participatory teams with parents and teachers were either new or had increased emphasis in this era. It was no coincidence that I began my doctoral studies in 1983, and that my research topic was the identification of superior teacher characteristics.                                        It was an exciting time to be an educator, and I had high hopes for schools when I finally retired. We wanted to improve learning and American Education, and what exactly was accomplished? Now, thirty years later, that question was succinctly answered by none other than William Bennett. According to Dr. Bennett, the former Education Commissioner at the time of the Report, “Nothing much has changed, but now it is twice as expensive.” Test scores are a little better, but was that the real goal of all our efforts? Paradoxically, the emphasis on improved test scoresproved to be the end of efforts to improve our schools.                                                     How could that be? If we improve our scores, doesn’t that indicate that we’ve improved education? Not necessarily so. I can accept that improving education will be reflected in improved test scores, but I would argue that it is not necessarily so that the reverse- that improved and increased emphasis on tests means that education is improving. Teaching test taking skills, having classes cram for tests, eliminating or lessening subjects and learning experiences that do not lend themselves to testing all might marginally improve test scores, and that is what is happening. Areas lost, however, might be important. As Ronald Kaprov further noted in his letter, “We don’t stress creative thinking and we don’t practice group problem solving, a must in a world in which technology is changing at lightning fast speed. Instead   we force our teachers to teach in lock step and make them teach to the test, pretending that tests are an accurate way to measure student abilities.” In addition, Individualization of learning for gifted or remedial learners, personalizing instruction for rural, urban or ethnic groups are often lost, as well as difficult to test but important subjects (as parents and frustrated employers know) like cursive writing, spelling or making change.  There is another important item that has been lost. Effective school research identified two specific groups that have been shown to have been able to make change, teachers and principals.. Not coordinators, superintendent, department of education officials, etc., they might be good and important, but their efforts do not translate into improved student learning. Today, however, as education has become increasingly centralized and scripted, neither of these identified change agents is recognized, elevated and encouraged in this system, and are instead treated with suspicion as part of the problem! Ask teachers and principals how valued their input or testimony routinely is, and often you will hear the same discouraging response.                                                 As a result of “Race to the Top,” “Common Core” and unofficial, unacknowledged and dishonest efforts at grade inflation and dumbing down of some class requirements and similar government remedies, education has suffered, Instead, we have opted for increased emphasis on testing, thinking it would improve education. It has in some cases marginally improved test scores, but anyone who talks to teachers or students, or observes classrooms, knows that the joy of learning has been severely curtailed, and classrooms can often be uninteresting and downright depressing. Today’s educational powers that be have pretty much reached a “ceiling” in test scores, which are still unsatisfactory when compared to the results achieved by other countries. These “leaders” might or might not have education certifications and are not teachers, and they have little feel for the classroom, so their answer will be more of the same- more emphasis on tests, with will result in similar lackluster results.                                                                                                                           Interestingly enough, the country that has in many areas the highest test scores is the one that paid the most attention to the original effective school  research, conducted by Jere Brophy the others, on what works in classrooms, way back in the 1980’s - Finland! That faraway country took the effective school research of the 1980’s seriously, and made the changes that made them work. Ironically they achieved the higher test scores the educationalists in our own country sought, by improving learning, which cannot be achieved, as Karpov notes, by lockstep teaching to the test. Needless to say, the group that was shortchanged the most was the inner city students whose best chance is effective teaching and true school reform. . Ronald Karpov concluded his letter by noting: “A first step is to go back to a system based on meritocracy and away from self-serving politics.” But how are we to do this in the political atmosphere of the public school system? I know inept teachers and ineffective programs that have been protected in today’s environment, and as a principal I have gone after both, to the peril of my career. A system based on teacher or administrator merit is a also a direct threat to unions, whose job it often is to protect the least able. Master Teacher programs today are often hollow, mock imitations of what they was originally intended, with teachers involved in curriculum development, decision making and mentoring new or less effective teachers. Instead they are often programs where teachers jump through hoops for a stipend and true teaching merit is ignored.                                                                 It is the thirtieth anniversary of the Nation at Risk Report. We need to break the stranglehold in centralization and government control that pushes the test and ignores quality teaching, which is why this particular lifetime NEA member calls for privatizing education and charter schools. Larry Koch Contributor to CRI

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